Home Environment OPINION: The rigged race for the Wayne National Forest

OPINION: The rigged race for the Wayne National Forest

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Opinion writer Anna DeGarmo explores how and why land leasing for gas and oil drilling is still occurring, even in the face of so much public opposition.

The Wilderness Society recently released a national report titled “Too Wild to Drill” that lists 15 places in America that are “too important, too special, (and) too valuable to be destroyed for short-lived commercial gains.” In addition, the report makes clear the benefits these areas provide to local communities. The report also highlights how attempts to begin oil and gas drilling programs threaten the environmental integrity of the areas. Among the places listed is the Wayne National Forest, which is divided into three units. The Athens Unit begins just a few miles off Ohio University’s campus.

National and local opposition to drilling in the Wayne National Forest has not been able to stop the federal agencies in control of public lands from leasing it. Regardless of the amount of time and energy those opposed to drilling put into opposition, federal agencies have great autonomy when it comes to decision making for land use. Agencies do have to follow certain guidelines. Their internal governing systems deftly handle opposition and leave organizations that want to prevent drilling out of options.

The Wayne National Forest is an area sought after for shale gas drilling and fracking. A 2006 plan from the National Forest Service gave the green light for leasing all federally owned oil and gas rights. Ten years later, the Bureau of Land Management created a detailed plan for oil and gas leasing. The plan, finalized in late 2016, authorized the leasing of rights for 40,000 acres. It went into effect late last year, and 2,000 acres have since been leased out. “Too Wild to Drill” calls for the BLM to “revise the ill-conceived oil and gas leasing plan… close important recreation areas and wildlife habitat to leasing and development… defer all new leasing in the Wayne, and cancel the leases… issued in 2016 and 2017.”

Concern for the state’s only national forest is not new to Ohioans. Many local and state groups have opposed the current plan since it was first proposed in 2015. Dozens of organizations and individuals have engaged in public protests and online petitions. A lawsuit was filed in May of 2017 by the Center for Biological Diversity against the BLM. The CBD accused the BLM of inadequate environmental impact assessments for approval. Public comments and protest letters are present on the BLM website, as are the BLM’s responses. The agency denied most protest letters, and the lawsuit is stuck in the slow-moving American legal system. On Thursday, Sept. 20, the BLM held its third major land leasing sale since Dec. 2016. The Sept. 2017 competitive oil and gas lease sale occurred unhindered.

Why is it then, even with so much public opposition, that the BLM can continue on with leasing? An endless number of environmental activists have asked this question. The answer isn’t simple or straightforward. It reflects the complex nature of who has agency over federal public lands.

Designed for conservation, resources in national forests are meant to be used sustainably. The surface resources of national forests are under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Forest Service. The Forest Service is part of the Department of Agriculture. The BLM controls below-surface resources, like oil and gas, as part of the U.S. Department of the Interior. Both are Federal Administrative Agencies, so multiple federal agencies have control of parts of the Wayne National Forest.

These environmental agencies function as federal administrative agencies, and were given as much autonomy as possible upon establishment. Agencies deal with complex environmental issues. They are the first place a citizen goes to in the case of a complaint. This chain of command frees up the courts and Congress, at least initially. If a citizen or group has an issue with the actions of an agency, the Administrative Procedures Act requires the agency provide recourse. The complaint is subject to scrutiny of “standing”, meaning the complainant has been harmed by an agency decision. If the agency believes standing is lacking, the petition can be dismissed.

The agency has the power to determine the type of review the complaint receives. Once a final agency decision is made, only then can an individual appeal to federal or state trial court. All complaints regarding an agency have to first go through the agency in an attempt to be remedied. Additionally, even if a complaint makes it to a trial court on appeal, standing is very difficult to prove. Standing is almost nonexistent in complaints filed by environmental groups, or cases where an action has not actually occurred. It is easy to see how formal complaints are relatively ineffective because of all the hoops that must be jumped through and the amount of power the agency has in the decision. The nature of this process makes changing policies regulating land and resource use difficult.

Organizations trying to stop plans like the BLM’s oil and gas leasing plan are losing a rigged race. The BLM is driving a sports car designed for the track. Organizations like the CBD are driving a golf cart. Even if there are more golf carts on the track than sports cars, a golf cart will not be able to catch a sports car. The race for the fate of the Wayne National Forest is not a fair one.

This is only one aspect of a multi-faceted problem. Ohio’s legislature is generally supportive of expanding fossil fuel energy sources. Any power the state government has is more than likely not an ally to environmental groups.

The BLM did have obstacles getting the oil and gas leasing plan approved. The agency performed and submitted environmental assessments to the U.S. Forest Service for approval. Any sales after had to have assessments conducted as well. All actions had to follow the National Environmental Protection Act guidelines. Still, any plan put forth by the BLM had the advantage in the race. The plan received approval, and the BLM began the leasing process.

Self-governing autonomy granted to the BLM gives the agency the authority to maintain its agenda. This power stems from the fact that national forest resource extraction is legal under the Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976. Thus, the BLM can continue to lease oil and gas rights to the highest bidder, even in the face of public opposition. A sluggish American court system stalls judicial routes for opposition groups. Government inaction frustrates legislative routes. To see change, the restructuring of goals and practices of agencies like the BLM is necessary.

The next leasing sale will occur in December of 2017.

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